The first time I watched 'The War of the Roses' was back during its initial theatrical release in 1989. I was still a teenager then, still several years away from my first "serious" relationship, to say nothing of actually being in a marriage. I enjoyed the film back then, admiring the dark humor and the risks it took, but aside from buying the laserdisc version in 1991, I had pretty much forgotten about the movie.
Now comes the special "Filmmakers Signature Series" Blu-ray release of the film. I'm now middle-aged, married, have been through a divorce, and finally "get" the genius of director Danny DeVito's dark morality tale. 'The War of the Roses' is a film that plays better if you can relate to the material. Which is not to say I cut the heels off all my ex-wife's shoes, but there were sure days I felt like doing it!
Danny DeVito not only directs, but he's the narrator of this story, playing divorce attorney Gavin D'Amato, who tells a potential client ('The Simpsons' Dan Castellaneta in – D'oh! – a non-speaking role) what happened in the marriage between Oliver (Michael Douglas) and Barbara Rose (Kathleen Turner). It starts out as most romances do… with what Roger Ebert has referred to as the "meet cute," as the two bid on the same statuette at an auction in Nantucket. They get married, have two kids, find their dream home… but soon the cracks begin to appear in the marriage. As Barbara states to Oliver in the movie, "When I watch you eat… when I see you sleep… when I look at you lately… I just want to smash your face in." You out there that are married may understand!
However, DeVito's film (written by Michael Leeson, and based on a novel by Warren Adler) then goes well beyond the normal bickering that is part of most married couples' relationships. What many couples only think about doing to one another, the Roses actually do… Oliver spoils a dinner party of Barbara's by sneezing on the appetizer (I best not mention what he does to the main course!) Barbara locks Oliver inside their in-house sauna after she learns he's (accidentally) killed the family cat. It all leads to a showdown of Hitchcockian proportions during the finale, when the two lock themselves inside their home for a final battle.
The most interesting thing about the movie is how it is able to play both sides of the conflict so evenly and, as a result, divide who the audience sympathizes with along gender lines. Don't believe me? Watch this movie with your significant other and/or a friend of the opposite sex. In most cases, the guys are going to side with Oliver ("All she does to him, and he still loves her… isn't he a great guy?!") and the gals are going to side with Barbara ("Can't he see she just wants him to go… why won't he go?!"). Give credit to the great script and the absolutely brilliant performances by Douglas and Turner (this is their third… and what looks to be their final… collaboration on film) for being able to play the audience right down the middle.
When 'The War of the Roses' was released in 1989, I recall quite the backlash from some critics and the public in general about how mean-spirited the film was. Many going to the movies expecting a romantic comedy were hoping the Roses would patch things up in the end, as the couples in 99 percent of movies usually do. That said, the film plays much better today than it did back then, thanks in large part to a continuing string of dark comedies where characters treat each other just as bad (and sometimes worse) than the Roses do here. Owing to life experience, and many years of dark comedies, I've developed a new love and appreciation for DeVito's film. If you haven't seen the movie in a while, you might want to take a second look to see if your viewpoint has changed as well.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The War of the Roses' arrives on Blu-ray on a single, 50GB dual-layer disc in another one of those recyclable cases, although it also has a slipcover over top…which makes one wonder about a studio that would encourage you both to save (slipcover) and recycle (case) at the same time. The case also holds a nice, 28-page booklet with text and photos covering the production of the movie. The disc begins with a real treat that I'm almost wary about giving away. The 20th Century Fox logo for their home entertainment division appears, and we see Danny DeVito crawling out from behind the "X" to thank us for buying the movie and giving us a short introduction to the film. The disc then goes to the menu, which includes video clips of the movie, with menu selection running across the bottom of the screen. The Blu-ray has been labeled for Region A (I've seen some online comments that it plays in Region B, but I cannot confirm or deny this).
Ahh, here's where it gets interesting and where we may either alienate or gather potential buyers. Having not seen the movie since its theatrical run (other than that early laserdisc release), I have no recollection of how the movie actually looked in theaters. I will say that the transfer here (which one assumes was approved by DeVito given the "Signature Series" logo, although no such acknowledgement of that fact is on the disc itself, and the box cover simply says "true to the director's vision") is on the soft side, and a good deal of film grain is evident. For many that hate DNR with a passion, this will be great news; for others who like the "pop" that Blu-ray often provides, this transfer (MPEG-4 AVC 1080p at the 1.85:1 ratio) may seem a little lackluster. But I'm going to give FOX and DeVito the benefit of the doubt and assume this is the way he prefers the movie to look. All that said, skin tones are properly balanced, and the print is clear of any defects or dirt. Colors seem somewhat muted, but I'm pretty sure the movie has always been that way, so that's one area I feel comfortable saying reflects the original theatrical release.
The Blu-ray features both an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track as well as an English Surround Dolby Digital 2.0 track, with Spanish Dolby Digital 1.0 and French Surround Dolby Digital 2.0 also being options.
While the 5.1 audio is certainly serviceable, it's not very active, although that's primarily due to the movie itself, which is dialogue-heavy. There are a few scenes where the audio stands out a bit more, like when Barbara stalks Oliver with her monster truck, during the climax in the Roses' house, and of course during the opening credit sequence, but for the most part the focus is on the center channel and front speakers.
Subtitles are also available in English SDH and Spanish.
Supplements consist of both new and old, with the best features from the original laserdisc release being carried over here, along with a couple of brand-new featurettes (detailed in the HD Bonus Content section that follows).
It's hard to believe 'The War of the Roses' is over 20 years old. The movie still packs a lot of punch, and the humor (however dark) still holds up. If you're a fan of the film or just a fan of watching great actors doing some of their best on-screen work, this release is recommended.